Outer Wilds is Best Played with a Co-pilot

It may be a lonesome adventure, but I'm having the best time with a partner.

I was pretty sure I was going to dig Outer Wilds, Mobius Digital’s impressive space exploration/puzzle adventure. My recent coworker Austin Walker recommended it highly, as one of those special experiences that resists easy explanation, but offers a sense of genuine wonder. Space exploration? Chill vibes? Mystery and puzzles and time warps? Sign me up!

I’ll keep this write-up vague on specifics and spoiler-free, since figuring everything out is one of the main draws of the game. But you play a rookie astronaut in the rough and tumble Outer Wilds space program. Your mission is to basically explore the galaxy, study alien tech, and find your buddies by the sweet music they fill the sky with. 

I played a couple of hours one night, enjoying Outer Wilds’ starter area and sweet, funky, summer camp meets indie space program vibe, and made it to a planet or two before I had to head out for the night. A few days later, I picked it back up, regrettably completely forgetting how to fly my finicky spaceship. But this time, my partner Viki was there. Together, and with the help of a few nice folks on Twitter, we figured out how to fly the damned thing and slowly, over the course of a couple more hours, dived into and fell completely in love with the game.

It’s not the sort of thing you’d immediately peg for a great co-op experience. The overall vibe is lonely and a bit sad (if a wistful, warm sort of sad), as you play a lone astronaut making their way around a solar system chock full of mysteries stocked by a long-gone alien race and their wondrous technology. There are puzzles to solve involving perception, and physics, and bizarre leaps of logic. But throughout, the player is on their own.

Outer Wilds Alien Language
Via Annapurna Interactive

But for Viki and I, it’s as if there are two of us in the tiny wooden cockpit (and, uh, jetpack). We figured out how to right the rickety ship together, and how to use the landing camera to actually touch down  — without careening headfirst into heavenly bodies. Many lives were lost to that cause…

We started to figure out the bizarre past of one planet, Brittle Hollow, and what might have happened there. No matter who has the controller, the other person will point things out. 

“Go towards the purple thingy!” I helpfully scream, or she’ll notice how to manipulate the controls to a device just so while I wander around. I don’t think we’re annoying each other, as Viki eagerly asks to play the game when we hang out at night. Our exploration and progress feel like a genuine collaboration.

Getting further into Outer Wilds takes effort, but it’s a joy every time a hunch proves correct — every time our ship log updates or shows a connection. There are ways in which playing the game feels like actual exploration, whenever our wanderings bear some insight. 

Well, that’s when we aren’t falling into black holes. That happens a fair amount as well.

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